What Our Future Will Look Like When Earth Hits Population 10 Billion

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Stephen Emmott, head of Computational Science at Microsoft Research, has created a devastating portrait the many ways we are impacting the planet. Emmott hascreated a one-man presentation that has taken theatregoers in Great Britain on tour through our own history and use of Earth’s resources, before offering a grim glimpse of what the future might look like if the population reaches 10 billion. In an interview with New Scientist, he shows that it isn’t good.

Emmot says his “goal was simply to inform and give people an opportunity and a framework for thinking differently about the nature of the problems that we face. You might say it’s quite stark, but 99 per cent of the talk is just the science and the facts. We could solve this problem with massive behaviour change. It’s the only part where I give an opinion – and I hope I’m wrong – but I don’t think we will make the kind of behaviour change necessary.”At one point in the talk Emmott suggests that “if we learned that an asteroid was going to slam into the planet, the entire world would rally to find a way to avert catastrophe – or set in motion a plan to rebuild if it hit.

“If astronomers and physicists actually discovered an asteroid, it’s a pretty simple problem: there’s a very large object hurtling up to earth and it’s going to slam into the planet. That’s pretty easy to understand. The complexity of this problem, that the inhabitants of the planet are gradually having the same impact for reasons that are all highly interconnected and complex, is harder to grasp. I also believe that as a species we tend to be either optimistic or want to just ignore problems until they stare us in the face. And this isn’t staring us in the face. It’s immensely appealing to want to believe that this isn’t a problem on this scale, or that even if it is, that we will figure out a way to stop it.”

“Even with 7 billion of us, there are already several billion people on this planet who quite understandably look at the way in which Europeans and Americans live and think, I would like to live like that. But as many of these countries start to become more populous and prosperous, they are just going to add to the problem. I just don’t know what the solution is, really, other than behaviour change.”

In an earlier call to action, the World Wildlife Federation’s 2010 “Living Planet” report said that carbon pollution and over-use of Earth’s natural resources have become so critical that, on current trends, we will need a second planet to meet our needs by 2030. The report says that 1 billion people do not have access to an adequate supply of fresh water. It pointed to 71 countries that were running down their sources of freshwater at a worrying, unsustainable rate. Nearly two-thirds of these countries experience “moderate to severe” water stress.

“This has profound implications for ecosystem health, food production and human wellbeing, and is likely to be exacerbated by climate change,” WWF said.* Every week humans create the equivalent of a city the size of Vancouver. In 2007, Earth’s 6.8 billion humans were living 50 percent beyond the planet’s threshold of sustainability, according to its report, issued ahead of a UN biodiversity conference.

“Even with modest UN projections for population growth, consumption and climate change, by 2030 humanity will need the capacity of two Earths to absorb CO2 waste and keep up with natural resource consumption,” the WWF warned.

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